Since October of 2010, I have now watched almost eleven hundred minutes of hopelessly dated television and written over thirty thousand words trying to make it relevant. I’m fairly certain I took away all the wrong lessons. For example, I know the rules of collapsing a pocket dimension concern learning whatever it is the dimension wishes to teach you. I know you should never get in a car with a stranger, have an alcoholic mom, or get involved in voodoo. I feel I am uniquely able to navigate the smoggy streets of the San Fernando Valley in the early ‘80s, which is really only thirty years too late, and who the fuck wants to go to the Valley?
I learned that even a genre as specific as the After School Special has ironclad rules:
The First Day Friend: When a female (never male) protagonist switches schools, she will meet another girl and they will instantly become friends. The First Day Friend is always one rung down on the cool ladder from the protagonist, and is usually only in a single scene to set up the rules of the local high school. They are usually then taken into one of those Temple Gradin devices and mercifully disposed of offscreen.
Drunk Moms: I touched on this in the write up for “Picking Up the Pieces,” but drunk moms (never dads) were everywhere between 1974 and 1989. Three episodes were formulaic remakes of the Drunk Mom formula (“Francesca, Baby,” “First Step,” and “Picking Up the Pieces”) and a fourth special, “My Other Mother,” prominently featured a mom who was a recovering alcoholic. Daddy never, ever drinks.
Creative Euphemisms: Remember, a child isn’t retarded, he’s shy. A woman isn’t drunk, she’s nervous or sick. And “a little ride” means a horrific rape.
Eerily Appropriate Lectures: No matter what your problem, from bullies to just being yourself, it will be covered in class. And all of it is on the test.
How about some bullshit awards too?
Best Episode: “Beat the Turtle Drum” remains my favorite hour. It’s actually pretty good, and it has that title, which I could think about for days. It encourages a mature response to death, has some decent performances, an emotionally scarring scene, and something inexplicable to ruminate on, in this case an imaginary French Canadian trapper named Jean-Pierre.
Runner Up: “Face at the Edge of the World” was a latecomer, but it’s just fantastic. From the subtextual noir universe to the cheesy acting from recognizable faces to the deeply tragic fashions, it’s a winner. It’s also not a bad hour of TV, although much of that is for what it didn’t say rather than did.
WTF Episode: So many to choose from, but I have to go with “The Skating Rink,” just because it really is that creepy. What elevates “The Skating Rink” above its fellows is that there is a single subtextual plot going on through the entire thing, and it really, really looks like era-appropriate softcore porn. None of this is intentional, but rather a relic of a more innocent time, where just because someone was obsessed with a teenager’s strong legs, that didn’t necessarily mean he wanted those legs wrapped around his head.
Runner Up: “What Are Friends For?” has a goddamn voodoo subplot. Though the magic is never actually real, it features a tween girl in full on witch doctor make up. That has to be the best reveal of the entire series.
Best Moral: “The Gold Test” prompted me to break out my beret and macchiato and compare an hour of cheeseball network television to a Hindu holy book. The moral, that , when it comes to vocation, one should accept nothing less from oneself than the best, is a cornerstone of my personal code. Also, it had ice skating, which was apparently huge back in the ‘70s.
Runner Up: “The 18th Emergency” was the first entry, and the only one of the episodes for which I had read the book. (The wife has suggested I track the books down and read them as a follow up. She’s insane.) It’s a very masculine lesson. Treat everyone with respect, but when you fail, own up to it, apologize, and accept any punishment stoically. Also, do not be called Peaches.
Best Amoral: “Ace Hits the Big Time” features the timeless lesson that joining a gang is a quick road to fun and profit!
Runner Up: Is that sore throat a harmless head cold or terminal cancer? “A Matter of Time” is pretty sure it’s the latter.
Most Horrible Lead Character: I have to go all the way back to Sara, whose “Summer of the Swans” taught us that while swans are assholes, Sara is so much worse.
Runner Up: “Gaucho” gave us our titular lout whose fondest goal was getting his mother deported.
Best Supporting Character: Tim Mahaney from “It’s a Mile From Here to Glory” has stayed with me as the the deepest bit part in the entire series. And what the hell was up with that tattoo?
Runner Up: Rick from “Picking Up the Pieces” is such a bizarre creep, I have to spend a little more time on him. I swear, I keep expecting to find him hiding in my shower to tell me about all those amazing things he’s doing, like watching me poop and chopping up raccoons.
Best Cast: “Schoolboy Father” featured Rob Lowe and Dana Plato foreshadowing their eventual falls from grace. And Nancy McKeon as the hot, popular girl!
Runner Up: Though it lacks some of the raw star power of the others, “The Pinballs” featured perhaps the most interesting and diverse cast of actors. Also, there was a puppy, which if you know me adds at least a star to the rating.
Biggest Descent into Madness: “The Dog Days of Arthur Cane” is basically Look Who’s Talking Now meets I Know My First Name is Steven.
Runner Up: “Trouble River” is the harrowing journey into the black heart of a grandmother capable only of hate fear.
After School Specials are famous for single moments that stay with the audience. Some of them will stick with me for a long time. Joss’s header off the tree house in “Beat the Turtle Drum,” the farmer flirting with the dad in “A Special Gift,” Michelle Mudd in her voodoo get up in “What Are Friends For?”, Rob Lowe yelling at his baby in “Schoolboy Father,” the dead mom waving in “A Matter of Time,” the incredible histrionic fight in “First Step,” Chest Rockwell’s cameo in “Tough Girl,” the rapist’s promise in “Did You Hear What Happened to Andrea?”, the hash marks on Duane’s truck in “The Dog Days of Arthur Cane,” and of course Iris’s lifeless hand in “Face at the Edge of the World.” That’s something for what is ultimately disposable culture. Yet in this modern age where everything is only a trip to youtube away, nothing is truly disposable. More interesting than the way these special moments linger is the way our minds enhance them, turning what was a cheesy moment of daytime television into something large and epic. From this half-remembered moment, we spin larger tales, reminiscing with others so scarred. This is the true legacy of the After School Special, shaping the collective unconscious of a generation.
And yes, I know they’re supposed to be Afterschool Specials. I spelled it the other way so the series would be “Gimme Some ASS.” Much like everything with this project, you can take the boy out of fifth grade, but can’t take the fifth grade out of the boy.